How Will You Compose Your Life?

Forty-eight hours after a technician turned off our son’s life support, my husband and I found ourselves going through the two suitcases and one backpack that contained virtually all of his earthly belongings. Basketball shoes, a navy parka, a half-empty tube of toothpaste, t-shirts, a folded print-out of his university classes for that summer term, some Polaroid photos of the one week he’d had on campus. On our knees and speechless, we fingered through sacred debris while alternately holding in and letting flow stinging streams of disbelief.

In Global Mom: A Memoir, I describe the moment:

A nice woman had gone to Parker’s dormitory and packed all he’d had in his room. Late one night, we’d sat, Randall and I, on someone’s living room floor in that university town, sifting through those things: his journals and class notes (his handwriting); his wallet; a Post-It with “remember to call Kevin”—simple, chest-crushing tidbits. A bitter, obliterating treasure hunt. His laminated student ID with its unwitting, wide-open smile. I’d clasped it ferociously to my heart.

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In an outside pocket of Parker’s backpack, we found a notebook with “Religion” and “Life” written on the cover.  “I just wonder what…” Randall’s voice receded as he opened to the single page of scant notes from this class Parker had attended during his first (and only) week at university. There, in green felt tip was this heading:

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“What do we take back through the veil?”

Not your usual question, even for a religion class. And certainly not typical for an eighteen-year-old college freshman whose wide eyes were riveted on a future chockfull of promise and invulnerability. He had all those pages to fill, after all, his whole life story to write.

Those pages. How they gawked at me, empty and echoing, void of my child’s voice. I had to grit my teeth to hold in a yowling tornado of agony as I imagined our son, robust and buoyant, jotting down those words so casually. I could envision him chatting in class, (“Parker, you raised your hand. Any thoughts?”), yakking away about death-as-theory. Then he would be slapping the notebook shut, slipping it into a backpack, and slinging its weight over his shoulder. Off to meet death head on.

The ink had hardly dried on the page before death itself answered this question for Parker.

What did that answer look like? What remained of Parker after he was pinned for several minutes in a lethal whirlpool, knocked out under water, then flushed out head first over jagged lava rock waterfalls? Anything? Did oblivion claim him?

If Not Oblivion, What?

Let’s try to imagine the possibilities. Did something endlessly him transcend flesh and bones, homeostasis, neurotransmission? Did this essential self, his spirit, peel from his oxygen-deprived body which was dragged by students to a patch of waterside gravel? Did spirit-Parker watch students encircling his body as they screamed, “Don’t leave us, Parker! Come back, Parker!”

Could his immortal identity, his distinct self, have been totally present and brightly aware of the paramedics panting as they attempted and reattempted CPR, barking, “Compressions! Keep on the compressions!” Did he see the local hospital emergency nurses hold those defibrillators to his chest again and again and again, then give shots of epinephrine? Was he present as the life flight pilots settled their helicopter on the landing pad then rushed his gray-blue body on that gurney into the regional trauma center? As his mother knelt, groaning, at the side of his body in the ICU? As his father bent over his firstborn’s feet and held them, praying? As his sister and soul mate touched his forearm then folded into sobs? As one younger brother stared in shock and the youngest huddled in the arms of a friend in a hallway? As the classmate, the one Parker had risked his life trying to save from drowning, was ushered into the room?

During a day and a half of coma, was whatever constitutes the inextinguishable Parker somehow close at hand? At the moment the doctor pronounced him brain dead did Parker hear those words? And as the ventilator’s whoosh was silenced, did my son communicate to some of us around his gurney, “I am here. I will always be right here”?

My point is not to convince anyone of what for me is self-evident; that Parker (and you and I) are immortal beings.  I don’t need to take on Nietzsche, Camus, Hawking, the long list of nihilists, or the even longer list of neutralists, the ones who shrug and chuckle, saying, “Es ist noch niemand zurückgekommen.” (No one’s come back yet.)

My point, instead, is to explore one thing: To what extent might that green question change our lives?

One True Sentence

What if that question were our life thesis, influencing our desires, choices, behavior? What if, as I wrote my life story, I were to place that question as my thesis statement? Right there on page one and in neon green?

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Hemingway, referring to writing, called this kind of guiding idea the “one true sentence.” It structures creation, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. When applied to writing our life story, that “one true sentence” works as an underlying grammar or fusing phrase for all we do and are. It is our mantra.

I mentioned this in another blog entry:

If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?

I like “What will you take through the veil?” because it is an instant sifter. It separates the significant from the trivial. It boldfaces what is lastingly essential and fades what is not. So much of what gets my goat (not to mention my time, energy, money, focus) is frivolous; too much of what is truly durable, sadly, gets short shrift. That question, if internalized, winnows away distractions, and slackens the sweaty grip of temporality, materialism, self-absorption, greed, despair –– so many ills. It even undoes the deadening choke of nihilism.

As another bereaved mother and author says:

The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula, I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give much more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved. I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don’t know if they even like me. But who cares? Loving them is my joy.

Give, give, give — what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don’t give it away? Of having stories if I don’t tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don’t share it? I don’t intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.

It is in giving that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.

…My daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give.

-Isabel Allende

 

Think about it: How challenging yet how refining to write one’s life story based on the conviction that what remains with us at death is that which we have given. That by sharing our experience, knowledge, talents, stories,  wealth –– even our whole selves –– we don’t just become one with others, the world, and the divine, but we ourselves become people who are bigger, richer, more fundamentally alive. Simply put, there is much more to us when we die.

And that’s what it means for us. What does it mean for Parker?

I think it means that at the age of eighteen years and five months, and on a summer evening in his first week of university, in a canal with an unmarked, deadly whirlpool, he went back in the vortex twice to free a fellow student who was trapped and drowning. And he did not lose life.

He gave it. He gave it and he has it more than ever, even now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

128 Steps to a Portable Career

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1. You breathe.
2. You love.
3. You think.
4. You write.
5. You move.
6. You move a lot.
7. You move with family.
8. You doubt your ability to do…just about everything.
9. You move with small children, nursing in buses, rat-infested alleyways, in your sleep.
10. You move with grown children. (In any event, you always move with growing children.)
11. You move with your partner’s fledgling career.
12. Which, with work+grace, grows into a strong international career.
13. Which keeps you moving.
14. And moving.
15. You have more children.
16. You doubt yourself.
17. You learn to decode cultures, languages, your own anxieties while collecting addresses.
18. You have some breakdowns.
19. You keep moving.
20. You keep writing your story.
21. (You had gotten those fancy, literature-based advanced academic degrees, after all.)
22. (When you had your first two babies, by the way. And you were moving far and often.)
23. You harness your skill set and education and energy.
24. You doubt yourself.
25. Your husband buys you a writing chair.
26. Your husband buys you a new laptop.
27. Your husband supports your efforts like you’ve supported his.
28. Your efforts ARE his efforts.
29. His efforts ARE your efforts.
30. You write.
31. You doubt yourself.
32. You breathe.
33. You write more while learning new languages, customs, rules for everything.
34. You dare to share with friends what you’ve written for yourself.
35. You get feedback.
36. You doubt yourself.
37. You breathe.
38. Your husband buys you a new printer and a bigger desk.
39. You write and speak and write and sing and write and speak.
40. You write more.
41. You doubt yourself.
42. You send manuscripts to 3 dozen top publishers.
43. You receive their genteel or gruff rejections.
44. You doubt yourself.
45. You breathe.
46. You abandon all plans to ever write, sing, or speak. Ever.
47. You can’t help but write.
48. You can’t help but sing.
49. You can’t help but speak.
50. You send your firstborn off to university.
51. You get a call at 10:47 at night telling you that this same child, robust and exploding with life yesterday, is lying in a deep coma.
52. You race, your husband flies, you hold the lifeless fingers of your child, you hear the experts tell you “no chance of meaningful survival.” You turn off life support.
53. You watch your child take his last breath.
54. You die.
55. You die again. And forever. Everything dies.
56. The universe unplugs.
57. The sky drains of oxygen.
58. The clouds turn into ferocious, carnivorous, metal-jawed demons.
59. The earth groans and heaves, soaked in bitter blood, its crust open to swallow up life.
60. The colors wash pale, or are too intense to look at.
61. The sounds grate and scrape or recede behind yowling crowding internal lamentation
62. The light burns. The darkness buries, mercifully.
63. You doubt yourself. You doubt your life.
64. But you don’t doubt God.
65. You long, however, to stop breathing. To be finished here.
66. You stop writing. You stop singing. You stop speaking.
67. You resent each sunrise that drags you back into life.
68. You walk, sleepwalk, sleep, one and the same thing.
69. Your deceased son appears to you in a dream.
70. Your son says, “Don’t stop singing.”
71. You breathe.
72. You breathe.
73. You listen.
74. You try to recall what that life felt like, who that version of you was.
75. You lie in your grave of grief and vow to never move from it, never to stand in the light.
76. You rest and gather strength. You learn a new language: Silence and Spirit.
77. You love.
78. You mother your living children.
79. You wife your living husband.
80. You move. A finger. A toe. A shoulder. A knee.
81. You stand up.
82. You move house.
83. You move with family.
84. You sing. Once.
85. You speak. Once.
86. You write. Again.
87. Your friend cautiously, lovingly connects you with an agile, buoyant publisher.
88. You meet that guy, thirteen times zones away, via Skype. You sign with that publisher.
89. You edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit.
90. You (fearing and weeping) join social media. You inch your way into the light.
91. You doubt yourself. More than ever.
92. You move.
93. You move again. You move countries. While releasing and promoting your book.
94. You star in a small technicolor panorama of breakdowns.
95. You trust your enterprising friends who call themselves, “Team ___”. (Your name.)
96. You get some rest and watch your mentors. You watch your dreams.
97. You get hives and nausea.
98. You work on your next manuscript.
99. You get it published. While moving countries.
100. You keep writing.
101. You plug your ears to all the critics. They are bored, frustrated,  and have not understood you.
102. You weep a bathtub full of anxiety while listening for the voice of your son.
103. You apply under eye cover up with a spackle knife.
104. And you sing.
105. And you speak.
106. And you write.
107. And people listen.
108. And people read.
109. And people’s eyes shine when they talk with you.
110. And people’s hearts open when you open yours to them.
111. And you get hired to speak in small halls, big halls.
112. And you get hired to write for yourself, for other people.
113. And you outline another book. Books.
114. And you write. Every day. And you speak. Every week.
115. And you get hired to “sing” more than you can find time for.
116. And you mother.
117. And you love.
118. And you move to another country.
119. And you write.
120. And you breathe.
121. And you think.
122.And you love.
123. And you love.
124. And you live.
125. And you learn.
126. And you find your light.
127. And you stand in it.
128. And you sing.
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8 Principles for a Strong Marriage: What I Learned on the Death Strip

Sometime in my late twenties, in the first years of our now 30-year marriage, and somewhere on a lethal length of highway locals call the Levan Death Strip, I learned everything I need to know about marriage. The learning came in a dream. In it I’ve identified eight principles everyone can use for a better union.

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The Dream

My husband Randall and I are driving through central Utah’s high mountain desert along an endless, arid highway known as the Levan Death Strip. “Death”,  partly because there’s nothing on the landscape but tumbleweed and dust devils, but mostly because it’s one of the deadliest stretches of road in the state. Semi-trailers and careening motorcycles,  rusted out 1973 Chevy Impalas, and cattle trucks meet head on at high speeds here, exploding the desert silence with the hellish sound of detonating metal and glass.

As I was saying, Randall is driving. I’m sitting shotgun, my eyes on the map. Straight ahead is this hypnotizing strip stretched taut as if it were a towing rope attached to the hood ornament on our car and at the other end to the setting sun, which shimmers on a ridge patiently drumming its fingered rays across the horizon.

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Suddenly, the sky goes dark. In the space of one breath, daylight is swallowed up in a black tide that thickens, obscuring everything round us, three-hundred-sixty-degrees of palpable heavy.

Barely ahead I make out the blinking orange of some tail lights. There had been cars far, far ahead of us a few minutes ago and now they appear closer, having slowed to a crawl. Everything inches, struggles, lurches. Then stops.

We stop too, on the left side of the road. No discussion, no way to move ahead, not only because we can’t see, but because this heavy has body. Some sort of gelatinous, clinging, viscous weight that is cold and lifeless touches my skin when I step out of the car and creep, hand-over-hand along the car’s right side, palming the hood, then patting my way to the driver’s door out of which Randall emerges.

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We say nothing even though I open my mouth and try to push noise up from my throat. The sound waves don’t travel through this new quality of air, so no use calling out. No use, even, trying to whisper to Randall, at whose left side I now stand, right arm linked with his left, pushed up against him, drawing warmth and reassurance.

By the cars parked up the road there’s a faint outline of people. They’re shuffling in this serious, deadly quiet.  Now the Heavy coagulates and I can make out neither people nor the tail lights that had just been visible in front of us. Randall and I stand in silence, fused that way, totally, existentially alone.

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With no way to judge distance but by the length of our stride, no way to converse, and no way to get our bearings, we simply hold on to each other. I can feel the swelling and contracting of his breathing. We fall in sync.

At the driver’s side of the car, on the left edge of the highway, we begin moving, inching. Walking is a must; something tells us standing still will mean death. So we cling to one another––I on Randall’s left, toeing the edge of the road so we don’t slide off into the shoulder; Randall to my right, initiating every step forward into the darkness.

It’s here, engulfed in heavy murk, that we lean onto each other, pressing. There is a symbiotic, synergistic friction that generates heat and not only keeps us on track and moving forward, but holds us up.

Many dream-time minutes into creeping forward and I turn, straining to see my husband’s face just inches from mine. But I can only make out that he’s wearing a suit. And there are sparks scattered on that suit. Little fine embers seem to be falling onto (or is it emerging from? I can’t tell which), the fabric. Afraid they’ll make his suit combust, I start swatting and then slapping these sparks.

Strangely, the sparks give just enough light to help us push ahead, which I sense we do long after my actual dream ends.

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1. Road

The journey you’ve envisioned on the outset of your marriage as a tidy, well-lit straight line to infinity? Not. Life is neither tidy nor straight, nor is it necessarily well-lit. See up there, a couple of hundred meters ahead where the mirage makes the road look swimmy? That’s where the beeline disappears, giving way –– again and again –– to the reality of the changeable and unexpected.

Know now that this will happen and you won’t self destruct when life doesn’t go to plan.

2. Vehicle

Start together. Stay in together. Sure, we can also chose to have our individual cars where we’re free to listen to our own playlists, eat our stinky beef jerky, and go at our speed. We can select our solo routes and stop at our preferred points of interest at will. How convenient is that? Saves us from compromising our plans and preferences with another person’s, right?

But the whole point is to travel as a team, which means compromise over convenience, sitting elbow-to-elbow, someone driving , someone reading the map, beef jerky that side, dried sea kelp my side. It’s of little consequence, by the way, who’s driving, who’s navigating; both functions are equally necessary and of course interchangeable, because in my dream, we are both licensed, alert, and invested in the trip, our individual contributions therefore essential for the voyage.

Know now that your marriage is the vehicle that does not just get you to a destination, but will test your capacity to place compromise and commitment over convenience, sharing responsibilities and whatever arises on the route.

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3. Map

You’ve noticed: maps help. (And GPS is better.) But only when you can see a road. What when you can’t? That’s where the strength of your partnership kicks in and you must gingerly feel your way together, into the future.

As a newlywed couple we found marriage mentors––living guidebooks, maps––folks ahead of us in life who modeled how it could all be done well. But roads change, and so travel plans. We, for instance, started out determined to be tandem university professors. Some years into marriage, however, both of us decided not to do our PhDs. Instead, we took a different route, or better, several end-to-end alternate routes.

Know now that maps must be pliable plots, not strict strategies.

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4. Darkness

Midway along our route tragedy hit and the bright desert daylight was instantly choked with the ultimate heavy. In one stroke of fate, and in the middle of major international move when our stability was already compromised, we lost our eldest child, then 18, to a gruesome water accident.

It’s then we learned that darkness had texture, heft. At any moment the Heavy can hit and swallow up our sunny route. Loss of all sorts, not just the dramatic blow we have known, can change virtually everything in an instant. Struggles with illness both physical and mental, addictions, a partner’s or child’s illicit behavior, unemployment, and larger societal events (war, economic downturn, natural disaster, etc.) or a combination of any of the above, might be our dark tide.

Know now that darkness not only might happen, but it will. When it hits, your marriage can remain intact and even grow stronger, becoming the very thing that helps you individually and as a family to survive.

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5. Soft Shoulders

You know those signs that warn motorists of soft shoulders off the sides of the road? In Tanzania I once witnessed what happens when they are ignored. A public bus over-crammed with passengers, their goats and chickens and baskets of market goods dangling out the windows, tried to overtake a stalled vehicle by driving onto the soft shoulder. The moment the bus’s two left wheels were off the asphalt and on the soil, the bus began sinking, then teetered, then toppled over on its side. Screaming, crushed adults and children, yowling and fluttering livestock were the soundtrack I can never erase from my memory.

Know now that soft shoulders are everywhere and anyone can slip more easily than you might imagine. And when darkness sweeps in and disorients you threatening to drive you off your route or from each other, it is especially important to toe that edge, reminding yourself to push inward toward your partner and away from the soft shoulder.

6. Synergistic Support

Although my strong inclination toward rule keeping meant I sensed limits well with my left foot, I was afraid to move forward into the darkness. I kept pulling backward. Behind felt safer than ahead, and I recoiled from whatever was out there in that pitch black mass. In real life, too, part of me wants to retreat from the unknown because I lack confidence in my ability to conquer difficult and intimidating situations. Randall, on the other hand, doesn’t obsess over worst case scenarios and forges forward.

Know now that progression in marriage requires both staying out of dangerous soft shoulders and pressing forward into the unknown. When you and your partner are pressing inward, toward each other, the isometric pressure not only propels you forward but actually gives you energy and helps you to stay standing.

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7. Sparks

When I first interpreted this dream, I saw those sparks on Randall’s suit as trouble coming from the outside. My job was to beat that trouble down. Part of a strong partnership is being alert and sensitive to our mate’s vulnerabilities and doing what we can to keep our partner safe. Of course my message is not to feel excessively guilty when a beloved plays with fire, so to speak, because of course we’re all responsible for our own decisions and behaviors. But I’ve observed the strongest couples try vigilantly to protect one another from trouble.

Loving each other means attending to each other, helping keep one another safe and well. We can do so by staying extremely close and watching for signs that something is smoldering. Does your wife struggle with anxiety? Does your husband have addictive tendencies? Does she fly easily into a rage? Does he slump regularly into a depression? Is she on the professional road a lot where she could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Does he work a lot on the Internet where he could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Then you do everything you can to strengthen them for those situations where they might fall into trouble.

Know now that everyone has weaknesses and everyone is susceptible to temptations or attacks on their virtue and morals. Know now that central to loving our spouse is not only having their specific sparks at heart, but to help beat them back before they take flame.

8. Or … Sparks

And here is the most important portion of the dream. Because at 20+ years into marriage I found that my former interpretation of it, which you just read, and therefore my paradigm for marriage, had changed. Where I’d previously seen myself as the safe-keeper, the border patrol, the ever ready spark-slapper,  now I saw those sparks differently.

What if those sparks I’d been slapping at weren’t signs of danger? What if they were something else? What if those sparks –- what I’d thought were temptations, fiery darts –– weren’t flying at my partner but those sparks are actually emerging from him? What if they weren’t bad fire but good, even flecks of hot gold? Not trouble but promise? Not hints of weakness but signs of power? I thought, “What if those sparks are searing heat and power literally bursting out of Randall, and I, in my hyper-attentiveness and self-righteousness am beating them down, beating him down, extinguishing a light, extinguishing him?”

What then?

There are so many ways we can extinguish the light in others. We think we are being care givers and life coaches, but in over-critiquing, in hyper-patroling, we can become nit-pickers,  fault-finders, nay-sayers. We can also hold each other back in our jealousy and insecurity when we permit our own fears, self doubts, and insecurities (we all have them) to breed that nervous reflex that lashes out –– slap! –– disallowing others to simply be who they are, to shine, even brilliantly.

We assuage things by saying we’re just being honest, when we actually end up beating that person back, or beating her up. We slap out another’s light by refusing to forgive, holding a grudge, keeping score, playing tit-for-tat. We can engage in power plays, we can belittle, we can even discredit our own beloveds in slanderous gossip. We might play politics, demanding equality at every turn, not interdependency as an overarching guide, saying, in essence, “Well, if I can’t have those sparks, then neither can you!”

When this new marriage paradigm came to me, I have to tell you: I wept. How many years had I focused on potential faults in my husband and not on the promising strengths? How many opportunities had I missed to praise him, to celebrate in his light, to see his radiance increase?

Know now that even in purely selfish terms, you are the prime beneficiary when your partner glows. Indeed, we all benefit when anyone glows!  You’ll remember: those sparks on Randall’s suit gave us both just enough illumination to light our way through a world of complete darkness.

When we make it through this heavy passage together––and I trust we all will–– then it will certainly be by virtue of all this unsmothered, heat-generating, God-given mutual incandescence.

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Global Mom (and Dad) Hit Harvard

Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.

What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:

GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE

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Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.

When:  Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away

What else? Question and Answer session

What kinds of questions?

  1. Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
  2. How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
  3. Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
  4. Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
  5. What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of  your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign  country?
  6. What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
  7. What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?

And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.

 

Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!

 

 

 

ICU: Things I’ve Never Shared About Losing Our Son

It’s taken eight years, two books, several live interviews, and multiple public addresses on the topic. I think I’m finally ready.

For February, our son Parker’s would-be 27th birthday, I’m going to share some heavies. It’s like doing daily isometrics. That means  that  grief’s vortex tends to pick up in pitch and suction near his birthday, making me long to sink into deep, silent retreat. But I’m not giving in. I’m resisting. Instead of going limp and lifeless, I’m sharing myself every day in person and in print.

One channel of sharing is the hands-on refugee work I’m blessed to be able to be involved in here in central Europe. (If you want more descriptions about that, you can dip into my Facebook, or my MDBglobalmom Instagram and Twitter accounts.)

The other channel of sharing is what I’ll now do here on the blog. Over eight years I’ve written steadily on major loss (journals, early book drafts, study notes, correspondence with wise friends, etc.) Now I want to share some of the more personal – and therefore powerful–pieces with you.

A few of these I’ve been posting on my @OnLossandLivingOnward Facebook page. (Click on that title.) But because some of those texts are long or of a delicate intimate / spiritual nature, I’ve been thinking Facebook just isn’t the right place for them.

So to the blog. Note: I’m not necessarily following any linear progression over the next few posts. I’m pulling what grabs my heart and what I feel might be of most value to my readers. I know some of you want a community of solidarity in your own grief, and I know others want to understand the contours and texture of major loss so that  you can help others in acute need. Your needs are a primary reason I share so openly.

The following piece I wrote within the first month after Parker took his last breath in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to which he’d been life-flighted and was being kept “alive” on a ventilator. I had driven alone and through the night to find him there, comatose.

IMG_4792Pocatello, Idaho: 3:30 a.m., Friday, July 20, 2007

There, in one of the first rooms, under greenish lights, poised impossibly flat and facedown on a gurney was my big boy. More silent and still than if he had been asleep, and propped with a neck brace was this, my oldest child, tubes snaking in and out of his nose and mouth making gurgling sounds, a stiff white sheet covering the length of his long, firm athlete’s body from waist to ankles.  I longed to wrap my self around him, but hardly dared approach his form. I dropped the black overnight bag I’d packed in a frenzy when I’d gotten the policeman’s phone call , and stepped to where I could lean very close to his profile, close enough, even, so that I could feel my own breath coming back to me off his left cheekbone. For an instant I was fooled: Is he breathing? But there was this big white laminate and stainless steel ventilator mocking that hope.

The upper edge of the cotton sheet – I could see it had a Portneuf Regional Medical Center stamp in fine gray font – was crisp, barely outlining Parker’s form beneath. His shoulders I traced with my eyes. I’d known this one mole from birth, these four tiny freckles since that sunburn from the Jersey Shore, I’d bandaged that small purplish scar when he was six. But these fresh gashes like an animal’s claws, where were they from? Parker’s newly-stilled shoulders kept expanding, lifting and dropping evenly, mechanically. I studied that hulking, uninvited machine standing on the other side of the gurney, I surveyed the other strange machines at his side and the stark fluorescent lights and the odd blue woven blankets and my unfamiliar blue fingernails, blue feet. It was a bluewhite coldness I’d never known, a cold that had lethal contours like the iceberg that took down the Titanic.

I reached for his shoulder. It was warm. His forehead and brow were badly gashed. I bent down within inches of the left side of his face and examined the metal scalp staples. His eyes were blackened, bruised, swollen and were slowly oozing a delicate trickle of blood. I froze. His mouth, oh that sweet mouth with its full bottom lip. I traced his hand. My body folded like damp origami.

“I Am Here, I Am With You”

I took his left hand in one of mine and steadied myself in a chair I had pulled as close as I could next to the gurney. Then I found and unzipped my black leather-bound set of scriptures, the first thing I’d thrown into my bag. I opened and began reading in half a voice into his left ear: “For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, And my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and profit of my children.” Parker knew these were my favorite verses from the Book of Mormon, so I chose them instinctively for our comfort. From somewhere within the room – or was it in the room of my soul? – I heard Parker’s familiar low voice, “It’s all right. It’ll all be all right. Thank you, Mom.”

I scooted the chair so my knees were now pushed under the gurney and I could almost rest my chin on Parker’s shoulder and resumed my reading, “Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.”

There were other people in the room, some I hardly knew, but I didn’t have the energy to ask them to leave. A perceptive nurse ushered them away and for a few minutes, I was allowed to be alone in the room. “Parker,” I asked inwardly, my chin to my chest and my eyes closed from distractions of light and ambient sounds, streaming tears down my face and onto the front of my shirt, “My darling, darling sweetheart, what is this? What has happened? Please, can you hear me? Where are you? I know you hear me.”

“I am here,” came the answer. “I am with you. I am right here, Mom.

I could breathe. I supported the weight of the moment with my elbows on my thighs, the heels of my hands over my eyes, my fingers up over my forehead. My scriptures lay open, flat across my knees.

“You must not leave me, Parker. You must not leave us. Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry, so sorry for this, so sorry.

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”portrait

Encompassed About

 Looking up for an instant, I was confused that his voice was so clear yet his body so utterly immobile. His mouth closed. His eyes leaking those perfectly steady drops of blood.

I pulled my scriptures up to my eyes. I continued, “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works. . .”

Another nurse came to adjust a machine and verify some numbers on a chart. I made eye contact with her, but even that quick glance was an unwelcome distraction for me, as I was trying to care for my son. And we needed to be alone, he and I. I reached up and barely touched his face as I read; “Yes, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about. . .”

Then there was activity gathering all around me, some people were moving in front of or beside or behind me, people were asking me questions, trying to be solicitous, interrupting my concentration, and I wanted to cry out that they needed to go far, far away. I was unable to form the words or use my energy for anything outside of my connection with Parker. Just to carve out a private, protected space, I closed my eyes and recited what I could by heart from my favorite passages: “And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth. . .nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”

I hungered to stretch out alongside my child on that gurney, lie down and breathe with him. For him. Give him my breath. Life support. Life support? Wasn’t that supposed to be me? Hadn’t that always been me?

Life Support

“My God hath been my support,” I kept reading, rocking lightly, rabbinically, my tone flat while tears plopped freely on my onionskin scripture pages. “He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.”

During those hours that I pleaded with God and cradled my head in my hands, dampening my scriptures with my tears, I felt the hot friction of fear and faith chafing against each other.  I wept quietly but continuously while I fought to breathe for Parker, whose tubes gurgled with air and fluid. I talked at times with those who kept vigil with me. But I primarily talked within myself to my son and to God.

(To be continued…)

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Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.

 

 

 

Repost: My Christmas Sermon Given in Frankfurt, December 2014

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

On Loss and Living Onward

What do you say to someone who has experienced the devastation of major loss?

Nothing. Just listen.

Filmed by Michelle Lehnardt, with score by Eliza Smith, and soundtrack editing by Corbin Sterling.

Featuring author and bereaved mother Melissa Dalton-Bradford, bereaved parents Lana Kemp Smith, Melodie Webb, Dean Menlove, Coleen Menlove, Lisa Garlick, Dean Garlick, Tom Linkous; bereaved children Eliza Smith, Calvin Smith, Millie Smith; bereaved spouse Marshall Smith; and bereaved sibling Kevin Linkous.

Loss and Living Onward. . .To Press

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

In one month my second book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices, will be in your hands. As I write these words, talented lay-out and cover designers David and Maggie are making last-second tweaks, and sending the manuscript off to press.

Let me admit something: This book has been pushing itself up and out of my very pores for nearly five years.  It’s been close to publication with two other publishing houses. And I’ve been teetering on that slick ledge of giving up on it, oh, 174 times. But I have a persistent (bossy and endearing) cheering committee, and they wouldn’t let me hunker down in the safe retreat of silence.  Finally, this book has found its rightful channel to reach the public.

I am grateful. I am joyful. I am tired.  I am anxious.

Anxious and slightly exhausted smile. . .

Anxious and exhausted smile. . .

When cataclysm erupted in our family’s life, I turned to literature for a community, common experience and spiritual knowledge.  People who know me well know that, with the exception of math, marbled meats and sometimes sleep, I don’t do much half-heartedly. So that same intensity translated into gathering hundreds upon hundreds of statements on loss and grief. Not with a mind to ever publish an anthology, mind you, but with a heart that was stunned to a sputtering speechlessness and needed understanding. I scraped and spelunked through other’s words to speak for and to me. In time, and without having had a plan on the outset to do so, I had the makings of a major tome on grief. Those quotes–at least those for which my publisher could acquire legal permissions– together with 17 of my best personal essays, have evolved into this substantial book. I can hardly wait to get it out there.

I sent a friend and fellow bereaved mother a galley (pre-published) PDF copy. Here’s what she wrote to me just this week:

Dear Melissa,
I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending much of this past weekend with your wonderful book…My husband was not feeling well, so we were both at home, and I read and read.  I can’t tell you how often I picked up my computer and said to my husband, “Read this,”  because you were able to articulate just how I was feeling so much of the time. And you did it so eloquently and beautifully.  You were able to put into words what I felt but could not express and you did this so much better than any other author I have read.
I loved the quotes at the beginning of each section.  I must admit though that I hurried through them so that I could get to your writing.  I do plan to go back and highlight as soon as I get my hard copy.  There were so many wonderful nuggets where I paused and smiled because they nailed feelings I had experienced and interpreted what I was still trying to identify.
One of my favorites was the grief beast section.  My grief beast looks a lot like yours, and now I can put a name and description to it. It’s still lumbering around but it doesn’t come as often as it did before and it doesn’t stay as long.  But I think that now I will talk about that beast to others so they can have a better idea about how awful grief can be.
I can’t imagine how heart wrenching it must have been for you to move to an entirely new country and new community right after Parker’s death.  How did you survive?  I’m so glad that you wrote.  It must have been healing for you, but now it is healing for so many others. Even though you were so alone, you have been able through your writings to reach out to so many.
I’m so grateful that you have such a gift for writing.  All of us who have experienced the loss of a child feel like your book is balm for our grief.  I shed a ton of tears as I read, but I felt so understood and valued. I will read it again and again. Thank you.  Thank you.

You know those emails that make your throat sting and nose prickle like you’d just breathed in a whole room full of dry ice fumes? This one.  If she says it works, I’m convinced. I need that kind of reassurance.  Similar to my fears of publishing Global Mom, I have had some nagging fears for this book, too. What if I turn my son into an artifact? Will I be misunderstood as bitter, gloomy, morbid, or strangely proud of or elitist about our family’s loss? Will my family’s story not be fairly represented? Will I make grief look too easy? Too hard? Too dreamy? Too predictable? Too comprehensible? Too tidy?  Will its most helpful pages not be the ones that were the hardest to write, which were the descriptive ones (my essays), but the most helpful will be the prescriptive ones, which took just a day to whip together (the two appendices with What To Do/ What Not To Do and a suggested readings list)? Will my deep faith and profound, repeated experiences with the spiritual alienate readers who do not, perhaps, consider themselves people of faith, or “spiritual” types? WiIl this book speak with humility the truth I’ve known?

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

 

I’ve run down this list of questions plus a longer one, be assured. But I’ll let you read my writings, and you can decide.

Visit my Loss and Living Onward Facebook Page to find daily updates as well as quotes I could not include in the hard copy itself.

You can preorder now on Amazon, or wait until May 6th to order and receive your stack for yourself and for

US Mother’s Day, May 11th,

and

US Memorial Day May 26th.

 

Cattle Truck Diva

Oliver bought her, cared for her, loaded her with heads of cattle and drove her from livestock auction to livestock auction up and down the state of Utah.  In places like Sanpete, Spanish Fork and Santaquin, she rolled in on dirt roads like she had rolled out of The Grapes of Wrath, only with a fancy new paint job. Fire engine red and nearly as big as your average city fire truck (though in his life Oliver had never lived in a big city, and had probably not seen a big city fire truck), she signaled far and wide to farm folk that Bishop Dalton, as they called him, was passing through. Rough hands shook over mottled heifers with molten eyes, and the red cattle truck trundled off, dust and trust billowing over the transaction.

Trip West 1960 (241)

Jessie was Oliver’s wife, the Belle of Springville and mother to four lanky farmhand sons, who chewed on wheat shafts and the ends of their sentences, and grunted submission when she hollered to “scrape that manure off those boots of yours before you enter my home!” She tolerated the red cattle truck in the driveway.  But only if its bulkiness didn’t make contact with her manicured rose garden or prized lilac hedges. Fragrance –– from homegrown flowers to flasks of perfume she kept in the velvet-lined drawers of her dressing table ––marked the borders of her domain.

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna would become Jessie’s daughter by marriage. Originally come north to Utah from the deserts of Arizona, Donna was raised by Mildred who had worked long, dull hours in a citrus-packing plant to fund the great dream: college, for all her six children. Donna was at university with one purpose, to sing. And it was while singing that she’d fallen for the blonde guy on the fiddle, the one who led the orchestra’s string section accompanying the choir concert where she soloed.

Donna with Oliver and Donna's parents, Leland and Mildred and the red cattle truck

The red cattle truck and Donna with Oliver and Donna’s parents, Leland and Mildred.

This was David, one of Oliver and Jessie’s cud-chewing farmhand sons who had shown just enough talent to set his heart on a future as a violinist. David had also set his heart on the brunette soprano standing in the university choir’s front row.  And as they say –– at least they said it in the1950’s –– the two ended up making beautiful music together.

David and Donna in concert

David and Donna in concert

They also ended up making for the due east. Leaving desert and Rockies, lilac hedges and red cattle trucks, they set out to study music at the finest schools and conservatories they could scarcely afford to get into.

Heading east

Heading east

Graduated couple

Graduated couple

In Vienna, Munich, at the Eastman School of Music, Indiana University – the two studied in tandem, parented in tandem (three daughters were born while they completed these studies), and finally, they built parallel careers. And a home. In tandem. In Utah.

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

FAM 1972 build house 079Donna became a melding of her two mothers, Mildred and Jessie, a thick crust of grit and workhorse filled with the sweet cream of cultivation and topped with a bright diva cherry. For a visual of her humility, tenacity and scope, imagine her pregnant with her fourth child, my younger brother, driving to and from opera rehearsals in the only second vehicle my frugal parents had: the red cattle truck.  Imagine her humming Puccini or Strauss while turning, with two hands the massive key that controlled the truck’s motor, a motor that grumbled, hissed and clunked like an apoplectic B-52 bomber. Then see her rappel, practically, down from the driver’s seat, slam the huge metal door, brush the dirt off her backside, and stride off to take to the stage.

Indiana 1967-70123Indiana 1967-70125Indiana 1967-70210BYU II UT 1970-064Indiana 1967-70211

A defining shift in my life occurred when I understood for the first time that not every mother practiced Italian arias while re-caulking shower tiles.  And that few ladies wore corsets and Renaissance wigs to their workplace after having hauled and laid bricks all weekend long.  And no one – I mean no one – in our neighborhood wore a paint-splattered denim mechanic’s jumpsuit to re-shingle the roof in the afternoon, then donned a purple paisley kaftan at dinnertime to stand out on the sidewalk and sing their children’s names on a high note and at the top of their lungs:  “Oh Daaaaaaaaltons!  Come to diiiiiiiiiiinneeeeeeeeeeer!”

Oliver has been gone for many years, as has been Jessie. My mother is now 79. My father turns 80 in a few days.  And today I am older than the Donna who hoisted two-by-fours and power saws, wore a brocade costume for a Wagnerian lead, sang for many years in the Tabernacle Choir, and drove a cantankerous hand-me-down monster truck. That red cattle truck, I suppose, has long since been turned to scrap.  The scrap has been melted down, poured into other uses, uses that will carry cattle. Or bricks. Or maybe an opera singer carrying a son. Or daughters who carry stories, and the stories carry us all.

Donna, my mother

Donna, my mother

 

So Much Depends Upon the Red: Thoughts on My Mother

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

My mother is everywhere. In my father’s fifty years of personal photo archives, for instance, she shows up in the majority of the shots. Sometimes she’s the sole subject. Other times, she’s the single fleck of red in the corner of a frame.

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She wore a lot of red as I was growing up – a striking contrast to her rich black hair that became, over time, a crown of silver braids – and got used to carrying a red something-or-other to add that pop of life in pics dad would be shooting.

TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland152Decades before amateur photographers carried their self-focusing, self-editing, smart instruments in their breast pockets, he was carting a suitcase of lenses and tripods in one hand while wearing a big clunky Mamiya slung around his neck. They traveled the world. He shot it all. Mom was his favorite subject.

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His shots captured both the minuscule and the majestic, and often, when he went for the grand sweep, he asked mom to stand “right over there, Donna,” in her red. Hat. Sweater. Coat. Shoes. Lipstick. Wearing red, she’d be the spot that heated things up with the shade of energy, of regeneration, the place a discerning eye first landed when scanning a photo.SA18 1977 Slz CZ DDR091

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Today, I look at these shots – a colonnade, a hillside, a bench, a snowfield – and my head might register that I’m seeing a colonnade, hillside, bench, snowfield. But when I ask my deeper senses what they recall, the answer’s fast. They remember my mother’s red.

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In these thousands of images that chronicle our life, you could be fooled into thinking this mother of mine is a mere accessory. A lovely addition, but peripheral, a parsley-like adornment to the real, main thing. But that’s wrong. Her presence is no simple trimming. Because she doesn’t just complete the composition. She is its lifeblood.

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One of my closest friends buried her mother over the holidays. We two had spoken on the telephone on a Wednesday, and when I’d asked about her mom, my friend had mentioned her mom was a bit under the weather –– nothing radically out of the ordinary, though, she added, exhaling lightly.  My friend had to run. She was taking her car to the garage for some repairs before the projected winter storm slammed through town, and said she’d keep her cell handy, waiting for a text from a sibling for an update on their mom. Just in case.

Within 76 hours from our phone call, my friend’s mother was gone.

She wrote about her mother to me today, the day which happens to be my own mother’s 79th birthday:

“A package that she mailed to us for Christmas is still sitting in a stack in my entryway, waiting for the time that we can Skype a belated Christmas morning gift exchange. How could she be gone if I still haven’t opened that package? If I still have questions for her? If I still see things that will delight her?”

And I shut my laptop to the sound of my heart cracking down the middle.

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To reflect on my mother’s vivid red lifeblood trail, of all that has delighted her, still delights her, delights me about her, of all that we have yet to delight in together, especially when another mother’s trail has run dry on this earth’s crust, is to plug into an industrial strength power source, twist the ribbed metal knob of my emotions all the way to the right, and brace myself. Things start rumbling then shaking – I feel it – and soon they’re shimmying and skidding across the floor.

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So I’ll save myself from dismantling, and will ratchet down the intensity, rein it in, by closing for today. I promise to write more about my mom and what her motherhood has meant and still means to me, and how her red bleeds into my motherhood still. For now, I leave you with a twist on William Carlos Williams, and some images of my magnificent mom-in-red, a color that runs through me.

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The Red

so much depends
upon

a red
mother

glazed with
lightshadow

beside her
children.